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Israel, Private Donors Fund Seattle Mayor's Mideast Trip

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray in the KUOW studios.
KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray in the KUOW studios.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is on his way to Israel.

He's scheduled to lead a trade delegation of Seattle-area business leaders next week and to speak at a gay and lesbian conference on June 11 in Tel Aviv. 

Seattle taxpayers are picking up a small portion of the tab; much of the trip is being paid for by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

It’s rare for a mayor of Seattle to accept payment or gift from a foreign government. No other Seattle mayor in at least a decade has accepted such a gift from a foreign government or business, according to records filed with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.

Former mayors Mike McGinn and Greg Nickels took trips that nonprofits such as the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the National Wildlife Federation paid for. But Murray's Israel trip is the first in at least a decade paid for, even in part, by a foreign government, according to the three mayors'  filings with the PDC.

According to Murray's office, the Israeli government is paying three nights' lodging for him and for a staffer with Seattle's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Seattle taxpayers will fly that staffer to Israel, while private donors from the Seattle area will cover other expenses for the mayor and his husband, Michael Shiosaki.

If Murray were running for reelection now, accepting a gift from any foreign source would violate federal election law. But since he's not yet declared his candidacy for the mayoral election in 2017, foreign gifts are not a problem.

Israel's gift is no problem under local law, either, according to Wayne Barnett with Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission.

What matters under Seattle's code of ethics, according to Barnett, is whether it could appear to a reasonable person that a gift giver is trying to buy influence.

"I just don’t see a gift from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs as one that's intended to influence the mayor's official judgment," Barnett said. "I just am not familiar with any official actions that the mayor would or could take in which the government of Israel would have an interest."

Protesters with the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid–Seattle have called for the mayor not to go to Israel.

They argue he’d be taking part in “pinkwashing” – in other words, distracting attention from human-rights violations in Palestine by highlighting Israel’s progress on gay rights.

Murray’s office said he will visit both Israel and Palestine and meet with Arab members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Murray declined to be interviewed for this story.

In a statement sent by his office, Murray said, "To the extent that I can help advance the cause of equality in Seattle, in Israel, the rest of the Middle East, or in any other places, I welcome the opportunity to do so.”

Murray plans to participate in Tel Aviv's Pride Parade.

The mayor's "office fund" is covering his airfare and some on-the-ground expenses for the mayor and his husband. That office fund allows private donors to pay for some mayoral expenses.

The mayor's office fund had eight donors in April, the latest month for which records are available: three Seattle-area CEOs, three real-estate developers, a political consultant and a hotel manager, all at the maximum $250 level. 

So far in 2015, the fund has mostly been used to send the mayor and his husband to the Superbowl.

For the trip to Israel, Shiosaki is paying his own airfare.

Year started with KUOW: 2009